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Researchers Seek Silly Sherlocks to Dig up Victorian-Era Jokes

Joke detectives are using the British Library to uncover what made Victorians chuckle

Wacky Victorian women play behind a clothing screen, ca. 1900. (Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

People living during the Victorian era are not exactly known for their jokes. Victorians are generally thought of as dour, serious people who reflected the rigid social codes of 19th-century England. However, researchers at Edge Hill University are using the British Library's catalogues to try and change that perception and are recruiting volunteer “joke detectives” to help dig up long-lost jokes, gags, and puns.

"When it comes to humour, our ancestors don’t have a sparkling reputation,” Bob Nicholson, a historian at the United Kingdom’s Edge Hill University, tells Martin Chilton for the Telegraph

Along with researchers from the British Library, Nicholson is on a quest to rehabilitate popular impressions of Victorian humor. These days, most people might sum But the queen never uttered these words, and was actually well-known for her sharp sense of humor, Christopher Winn writes for History Today.

“Far from being humourless, it turns out that the Victorians were prolific joke writers,” Nicholson tells Chilton. “Some of them, dare I say it, were even quite funny."

In order to do away with Victorian England’s humorless reputation, Nicholson is looking for help in combing through old Victorian texts in search of jokes, puns, and gags, and sharing some of the best through a Twitter account and the hashtag #VictorianJokes, Erik Shilling reports for Atlas Obscura.

Since starting the project in 2014, Nicholson has uncovered gutbusters like “there’s only one melancholy fact about calendars – there’s no time when its days are not numbered” and “the corset comes to stay, and at the same time goes to waist.” Yes, the Victorians not only built railways and colonized countries, but they also perfected the art of the dad joke.

Nicholson plans to present some of his findings next week at Harvard University. But his research hasn’t just helped dig up some groan-inducing puns, but has helped the British Library learn new ways of finding research help to sort through piles of archival materials.

“What we like about Bob’s project is that it has helped the Library understand how to utilize online communities to help us locate and catalogue culturally significant information that otherwise may have been forever lost,” Mahendra Mahey, a project manager at the British Library Labs, tells Chilton.

Whether you think these jokes are funny may depend on your own sense of humor, but it’s to know the Victorians were able to crack a smile every once in awhile.

Update, March 18, 2016: This piece has been updated to reflect that Edge Hill University researchers are utilizing the British Library's catalogues.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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